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Sleep myths: the rest robbers

Are you missing out on getting the perfect night’s slumber because you believe some of these common myths surrounding sleep?

Shut eye lies:

1. You can sleep when you’re dead

Less sleep might help us find more hours in the day to work – or party – but it will take its toll on our health.

Research* has found that sleeping for only four hours for six nights in a row can increase stress, blood pressure and insulin resistance, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes. Less sleep also impairs our immune system, making us vulnerable to infection and illness.

Pulled an all-nighter? You’ll be experiencing the same level of cognitive impairment created by being over the drink-drive limit. In Britain, we sleep for an average of 6.8 hours, with 35 per cent of us getting less than the recommended seven hours per night.*

2. The snooze button helps you wake up

Serial snoozer? Here’s a reason to jump out of bed on the first alarm. Not only can hitting snooze make it more difficult to wake up because you begin to enter a new sleep cycle,** this fragmented sleep also makes you feel sleepier during the day as it is less restorative than uninterrupted sleep.

Entering a new sleep cycle and then waking again as your snooze goes off can cause sleep inertia – that feeling of sluggishness when we are still half asleep, making it more difficult to wake up than if you had risen with your first alarm.†

3. Drinking alcohol relaxes you and helps you sleep

Using alcohol to promote sleep is a false economy. For many, alcohol may seem essential for ‘switching off’. This is because its first response is to relax us by heightening the relaxing brain chemical, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which soothes the brain and nervous system and tends to be low in those with insomnia and anxiety.

A cycle of having alcohol before bed can affect sleep quality later, even if it does help some people fall asleep. ‘The practice sets up a pattern in which the brain starts to need alcohol to create GABA, rather than utilising our own,’ says nutritional therapist and yoga teacher, Charlotte Watts, in her book The De-Stress Effect (Hay House, £12.99).

‘Ensuring good magnesium levels (green, leafy vegetables are rich in magnesium) is effective. For inducing sleep hormones, teas work for me. I turn to camomile and get digestive help from fennel and peppermint, as stress held in the gut can relate to sleep issues. Pukka’s cleanse tea is great.’

4. Sleep is gender equal

Do you ever find that you drag yourself out of bed in the morning, while your partner/brother/male housemate springs up like a jack-inthe- box? Research has found that women are more prone to sleep problems than men – mainly due to the hormones oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone, which fluctuate with menstrual cycles, and have an effect on the regulation of sleep in the brain.

This is a new discovery as, until recently, the majority of sleep studies were conducted on men.††

5. More sleep is always better

Just as too little sleep can be harmful to health, so can too much. Shawn Youngstedt of Arizona State University* says that habitually sleeping for eight hours or longer can be just as detrimental to our lifespan, if not more so, than sleeping too little.

Experts theorise that this could be because spending longer in bed can eat into our day, and take up time we might otherwise have spent being active.**

6. Teenagers are lazy

The tendency that young people have to sleep late and then reluctantly get up for school isn’t laziness, but a phenomenon found in all mammals, wherein adolescents’ circadian rhythms (body clock) and sleep pressure ‘build up’, creating a delayed sleep phase.†††

Campaigners have been pushing for later school starts to give teenagers the best chance of success. According to a study, a 7am alarm for a teenager is the equivalent of a 4.30am start for a 50-year-old. ††††

*‘The New Scientist’ issue 3075; **EJ Stepanski et al, The effect of sleep fragmentation on daytime function, ‘Sleep’, 2002; †T Akerstedt et al, Awakening from sleep, ‘Sleep Medicine Reviews’, 2002; ††’Scientific American Mind’ issue 15; †††M Hagenauer et al, Adolescent Changes in the Homeostatic and Circadian Regulation of Sleep, ‘Developmental Neuroscience’, 2009; ††††Paul Kelley et al, Synchronizing education to adolescent biology, ‘Learning, Media and Technology’, 2015.

Photograph: iStock